The Wayside Station of Old

by Vinod Nanekar, March 2007

In his book "The Wheels of Ind", John W. Mitchell gives an interesting account of a train journey he undertook from Bombay to Calcutta. "...The train tore along through the night," wrote Mitchell, "the roaring of wheels and the monotonous rattle off rail joints deadened our ears, the swaying lights flickered and dazed with their drunken lurch and the steady hum and purr of the electric fans irritated till ignored. The flash of naphtha flares, illuminating the single-line token apparatus at wayside stations went past in a bewildering dazzle.... Onwards we go, hurtling through the night, the engine whistling as it dashes through oil-lit jungle stations or crashing over long narrow bridges open on either side...."

Mitchell wrote these words nearly three quarters of a century ago. Having served in the railways since 1963, the mention of naphtha flares and oil-lit jungle stations struck a familiar note for me, bringing back wistful memories of a laid back era when smoke and steam reigned supreme, when the electric telegraph was the prime instrument used for communication, and when the word 'station' hardly ever referred to anything other than a railway station

The oil-lit jungle station of which Mitchell speaks was as desolate a place as it was remote and obscure. And it continues to retain this character to this day, although electrification together with present-day refinements seemed to have mellowed down this aspect a good deal. There's a very good reason why station masters of old dreaded the thought of being posted at one of these tiny halts. The towns which these stations served were often quite small with no facilities for education or medical care. To stock up on groceries the station master would have to pedal his bicycle to the weekly village bazaar, perhaps several kilometers away - or else make use of his 'provision pass' which would entitle him to travel free to the nearest main station. The entire station staff was housed in a colony next to the station, water was drawn from a well, and if the well ran dry, as it sometimes did in the summer months, water for drinking had to be got from the engine of a halting train.

But it won't be doing justice if we merely dwell on the hardships, for the job of manning a roadside station had a romance of its own. It was an adventure that brought out the finest in a person, helped him to develop endurance and team-spirit, and best of all, like Crusoe marooned on an island, it prompted him to find ways and means of improvising and making the most of the limited resources and facilities that were available at the place.

There are about eight to ten persons manning a wayside station. Besides the station master who's the overall head, you have one (sometimes two) assistant station masters, some four cabinmen to operate signal and point levers, and two or maybe three pointsmen. Working in 8 or 12 hour shifts, these ten men are solely responsible for the working of the station.

At the bottom rung of the ladder is the pointsman. He may be illiterate, and yet he has a job to do that is as important as any other. A pointsman is so called because he is the one who is required to set the points for the admission of a train or while shunting is in progress. Besides the setting of points, a pointsman also had to light up the station lamps (working on kerosene) towards evening, then trudge across the yard to light up semaphore signal lamps making certain that the wick was trimmed and the spectacle lenses were sparkling clean. On single-line stations provided with Neale's ball token instruments, it is he who hands the token to the driver, passes on any letters of authority or caution orders, and attends to any other task he may be called upon to do.

If the pointsman has to move around continually to attend to manual tasks, the station master has to remain at his seat for most of the day. Besides operating the block instruments in his charge and entering the timings of various signals he receives on these instruments in the Train Signal Register, he has paysheets and returns to fill, attendance registers to sign, and makes entries in the station diary stating any unusual incident that may have occurred, together with other details such as the time at which he takes over charge. Then again, when an express runs through his station, the station master accompanied by a pointsman has to inspect the passing train looking for any signs of a dangerous condition such as a door opening outwards, a spring hanging loose, or a hot axle.

While the station staff is fully trained to operate the station flawlessly, it is left to the Signal & Telecom men to see that the equipment handled by the station staff is in perfect order. Once every week, the station staff has the pleasure of entertaining their colleague from the S & T department who arrives by train. The Mechanical Signal Maintainer together with his assistants attends to routine maintenance and repairs of signals, points, signal wires and point rodding, and cabin lever frames and interlocking apparatus. For routine inspection and maintenance of electrically operated points and signals, block instruments, telephones and so on, it is the Electrical Signal Maintainer who is responsible, and like his mechanical counterpart he calls on the station at weekly intervals.

The wayside station has a stillness that seems to pierce the soul - those marvelous long watches of quiet and solitude broken only by the chirp of the birds, the occasional bark of a dog, or the throbbing of a distant flour mill. This is life at its best. It is life in the very lap of nature, where every breeze that blows makes the leaves rustle with song, where the tinkling of the bell signals the approach of a cart drawn by the gentle-eyed bull, and where the coming of the night reveals a sky brightly studded with stars making it seem as though the heavens were smiling down at you.

A bell rings and I wake up from my reverie. The morning Passenger is due in a short while. I glance at my watch, then place the commutator of the double-line three-position block instrument to 'line clear'. At a small wayside station it is the station master (or the ASM, whoever happens to be on duty) who sells tickets at the window. The platform is already crowded with simple folks dressed in dhotis carrying huge bales of luggage with their womenfolk and children dressed in colourful attire, some squatting on the cobbled platform, others seated in the waiting hall next to my office. Nearby the chai waala is busy brewing tea in an aluminium kettle and serving heaps of freshly fried pakoras in paper bags to eager eyed village folk. Looks yummie....!

The arrival of a passenger train is perhaps the only time when the little station comes alive with life. The train has pulled in and comes to a halt, the engine letting out clouds of smoke and hissing away as though it is eager to resume its onward journey without further delay. But this is no time for idle thinking for I am supposed to be at the exit collecting tickets from passengers to have just arrived. They pause briefly as they pass my side, hand over their tickets, then begin their long trek back to their homes in the village.

Presently a shrill whistle blows. The guard waves his flag, and the engine gives out a puff, then another puff..... the train has begun to move. The clicketty-clack of the wheels gets faster till at last the guard's coach comes into view and gracefully moves on into the distance. The train has left and the station is once again its quiet old self.

For the railway enthusiast the arrival of a goods train at a wayside station can be a far more interesting spectacle to watch than a passenger train which barely halts for a few minutes before moving on. Here comes a goods train chugging in laboriously with a long line of 4-wheelers, some open wagons, others closed. As I peer out from my office I find that the train has slowed down, its wagons creaking and clanging as though they are reluctant to come to a stand. But the train does halt and within a few minutes the driver sporting a bandana around his head saunters into my office accompanied by the guard dressed in an immaculate suit.

Two wagons at the front are to be detached for unloading, the men tell me taking a seat opposite me. I take a look at the guard's wagon way-bill, a document specifying the destination of each wagon, and find that it is indeed so. The next step is to prepare what is known as a shunting order. This is a form specially printed for the purpose where the station master has to write out full details regarding each of the shunting moves required for depositing the wagons (or collecting them, as the case may be) at the goods shed. Shunting is generally not permitted in the face of an approaching train, so if no line clear has been given I hand over the shunting order to the driver (with a copy to the guard) and inform the cabinman about the shunting moves that will be needed and the points he needs to set. The driver, guard and the station pointsman armed with his red and green flags now leisurely proceed to the site and commence their work.

Once shunting is over and the engine is back on the train there can really be no certainty that it can resume its onward journey immediately. It all depends on the kind of instructions we receive from the Section Controller. Perhaps two or more express trains following each other in succession have to be passed, in which case all the poor goods train can do is to wait on the loop line patiently without voicing a protest. There have even been instances when a goods train was halted for so long that the water in the engine's tender was exhausted forcing the driver to put out the fire!

The wayside station of old has a long story to tell. But oh! I almost forgot to mention about those naphtha flares John Mitchell spoke about in his book. They were chemical flares lit up at night on single-line wayside stations so that the driver of a run-through train could easily spot the pointsman holding the token, then crook his hand and collect the hoop as his train hurtled on into the night.